“More than 40 percent of Americans suffer from heartburn pain at least one time each month,” reports Florida Hospital. And if you’re one of the 60 percent that hasn’t had heartburn symptoms yet, Florida Hospital also notes, “Almost everyone will experience heartburn at some point in their lives.”
Although heartburn may be described medically as an irritation of the esophagus, for sufferers it may feel more like a tiny fire-breathing dragon living in your chest. You may experience burning in the upper abdomen or near the breast bone, chronic coughing, sore throat, indigestion and even nausea or regurgitation.
How the fire starts
Dr. Robert Huizenga — former physician for the Los Angeles Raiders, author of It’s Okay, It’s Just a Bruise (which inspired the film Any Given Sunday) and founder of The Clinic by Dr. H — breaks it down for us:
“Heartburn — also called gastroesophageal reflux — occurs when hydrochloric acid produced in the stomach refluxes backs up into the esophagus. There is a one-way valve between the stomach and esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) that should prevent this, but if pressure from below is too high (i.e., pregnancy, obesity or large volumes of food) or the valve is exposed to certain chemicals (fats, chocolate, caffeine, carbonation, alcohol, peppermint), it will inappropriately open.”
Who gets acid reflux?
Dr. H explains, “Heartburn is more common in women during child-rearing years, because pregnancy is a common trigger of retrosternal burning pain after meals or when lying down or bending over. However, at other ages, it’s more frequent in men because alcohol intake and beer belly… are prominent male-associated risk factors.” Thus, he makes a good point: “Heartburn is somewhat heredity-based, as binge eating, obesity, alcoholism have strong genetic ties.”
Heartburn myths to avoid
Myth 1. Drinking milk relieves heartburn
“Drinking milk — or drinking or eating anything to wash acid out of the esophagus — typically ameliorates the symptoms of heartburn temporarily, but over time, this ‘treatment’ may be counterproductive, i.e., increased caloric intake heightens obesity risk,” Dr. H tells SheKnows.
Myth 2. Taking antacids “cures” heartburn
“Liquid (acid neutralizers) and pill antacids (suppressors of acid production) make the retrosternal discomfort symptoms due to esophageal tissue damage better,” he continues. “However, in most cases, the backward ‘reflux’ of stomach contents continues until the base causes of reflux (excessive late-night fatty food, alcohol and obesity) are addressed.”
Options for relief
1. Exercise. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle may not cure acid reflux, but it can definitely help relieve its occurrence. Dr. H explains, “The very best treatment for heartburn is regular exercise, healthful diet with no large meals, no late-night fatty meals, caffeine or alcohol (and) optimal body weight.”
2. Licorice. If you opt for DGL licorice — which does not contain glycyrrhizic acid, an ingredient that can cause high blood pressure if taken too often — it can actually help build the protective mucous lining in your stomach. This can help with ulcers and the side effects of acid.
3. Melatonin. On his show, Dr. Oz notes that our intestines actually make 400 times more melatonin than our brains do. “When you’re asleep, your body has to be extra vigilant to prevent the reflux from happening,” he explains, which is where extra melatonin will help.
4. Baking soda. For a simple relief remedy, you can always try a mixture of baking soda and water. Opt for 1 tablespoon of baking soda to 1/2 cup of water. “It’s the acid that’s causing the problem; the alkaline solution neutralizes that,” Dr. Oz clarifies.
5. Your bed. Dr. H identifies another solution: “Sleeping with 2-inch-high blocks of wood under the head bedposts (letting gravity keep the acid in the stomach).” You could also invest in a bed that allows you to alter the height of the headrest. But, he advises, “Seek medical attention if symptoms persist despite addressing the above measures.”